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Philip Roth, “two decades of American time.”

 

I’ve finally gotten around (almost two decades late) to reading Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, which I highly recommend. Along with the story, which is terrific, there are also some wonderful sentences.

At the beginning of Chapter 2, Roth describes the explosion of energy that followed the end of World War II, the end of the depression, the mood of America in the late 1940’s when he and his main character came of age.

“The lid was off. Americans were to start over again, en masse, everyone in it together. If that wasn’t sufficiently inspiring—the miraculous conclusion of this towering event, the clock of history reset and a whole people’s aims limited no longer by the past—there Was the neighborhood, the communal determination that we, the children, should escape poverty, ignorance, disease, social injury and intimidation—escape, above all, insignificance. You must not come to nothing! Make something of yourselves!”

One sentence in particular struck me just a short ways after the ones quoted above in which Roth talks about the huge psychological distance between the generation of his parents — burdened by economic fear, racial insecurity, limited by modest educations — and his own generation and those of his high school classmates:

“The shift was not slight between the generations and there was plenty to argue about: the ideas of the world they wouldn’t give up; the rules they worshiped, for us rendered all but toothless by the passage of just a couple of decades of American time; those uncertainties that were theirs and not ours.”

I especially like the phrase “American time” rather than a couple of decades of time. It renders the sense that time in this country in which the clocks have been reset operates at a different rhythm and tempo than time elsewhere. It is a new country in which clocks can be reset but also where two decades may function like two centuries. That extra adjective makes the sentence.

 

 

 

 

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